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When I first heard “Cherry Wine” on the way to Hozier‘s show at the Trocadero in November 2014, I was struck by the soft, lullaby-ish nature and the simple chords paired with his soft baritone. My sibling, driving, was watching me in the corner of their eye as I took in the Irish musician’s powerful self-titled debut on very first listen. Once I got over that this was a live recording, I listened a bit deeper to the lyrics. “Is this supposed to be a nice…?” I stopped before I finished “Is this supposed to be a nice song?” as I suddenly recognized the feeling and I knew it well.
The feeling I reference, and that is brought up every time I try to listen to “Cherry Wine,” is a combination of helplessness and denial. I say “try” not because I do not like the song; it’s because I return to the feelings of helplessness, denial, and anger that the song brings up every time that I listen to it. It’s the denial that someone you love is hurting you, that you love someone that hurts you, and you cannot do anything about it. I am both a direct and secondhand victim of domestic abuse and violence. I never bore a black eye or a bruise I had to hide, like Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan in the video; my scars are underneath the surface, as are memories of feeling helpless as a child and, then, as an adult.
These emotions are just the few of many that survivors of abuse feel. Why bring up something that hurts you, when you also feel complicit in what’s happening to you? This is why the song and the lyrics hit home. The point of view of the song is a man being abused by his female lover. The chorus (“The way she tells me I’m hers and she is mine / Open hand or closed fist would be fine / The blood is rare and sweet as cherry wine”), speaks to feeling like this is the way the person you love tells you they love you. Like The Crystals‘ famous lyric, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” Hozier takes on abuse as the abused would see it while in that situation–as love, though it is not.
In this way, music conveys emotion where the written word would fail on its own. The melody is soft and soothing, like a lullaby, yet the words describe the multitude of ways the narrator of the song is abused by his lover. Despite it all, the narrator still yearns for the validation of the abuse/love, saying, “And it’s worth it, it’s divine.” In this way, Hozier brings understanding to a wider audience. Not only is the subject matter different from what is statistically the norm, the song shows that abuse happens in a multitude of different ways to a multitude of different people. Instead of offering pity and repetitive interrogation of the victim, Hozier offers insight to how and why people stay in abusive relationships, and it is complex: “the cycle of justification.” The insight strips away potential ostracization of the victim as other songs have done and takes away the judgement of them by a third party. It’s a safe haven, in a way, and a compelling way for a victim to recognize their situation, even if it is as simple as listening to a song.
The music video, directed by Dearbhla Walsh, portrays an abusive relationship between actors Saoirse Ronan and Moe Dunford. Fittingly released on Valentine’s Day, the video features intimacy and a close connection between the two characters; for most of the video, the only overt signs of abuse are the physical marks left on Ronan’s arms and, later, her bruised face. In this way, the abuse is also subtle. It lurks just under the surface, with no outright scenes of violence. The video, like its song, shows another way to not only portray this relationship, but also the complexities of the victim. Ronan, throughout the video, continually looks frozen as she removes her makeup–as she strips away what covers up evidence of abuse. The expression she conveys as she does this seemingly menial task is one of a combination of fear, at times, realization, as well as denial while she is clearly deep in thought and silent during this process. When Dunford covers her bruised eye as she seeks his comfort, her silent reaction is heartbreaking–the man who did that to her does not take pride in her, does not see her beauty and love past his handiwork, and, ultimately, rejects her subtly.
The subtleties in “Cherry Wine” the song and the video, and those that exist in these particular types of relationships, are issues that need to be discussed plainly, and the victims–who may not know they are victims–need to be recognized and recognize the situation they are in. In his now-international position, Hozier is going a step further in taking on this issue head on. Not to be swept under the rug as a heartbreaking b-side, he released the song as a single through iTunes with all of its proceeds going to benefit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the United States, and many more worldwide. You can purchase the iTunes-exclusive single here.
Watch the heartbreaking video for “Cherry Wine” and tell us your thoughts in the comments below.